Ideas are cheap, theories are hard

In the context of public discourse, there are times when one is driven to simple, reflexive and often disproportionate (exasperated) responses.  That happens to me whenever people talk about the various theories that they apply to a process or event.  I respond by saying (increasingly silently to myself), that what they mean is really that they have an idea, a model, a guess, a speculation, or a comforting “just-so” story. All too often such competing “theories” are flexible enough to explain (or explain away) anything, depending upon one’s predilections. So why a post on theories?  Certainly the  point as been made before (see Ghose. 2013. “Just a Theory”: 7 Misused Science Words“). Basically because the misuse of the term theory, whether by non-scientists, scientists, or science popularizers, undermines understanding of, and respect for the products of the scientific enterprise.  It confuses hard won knowledge with what are often superficial (or self-serving) opinions. When professors, politicians, pundits, PR flacks, or regular people use the word theory, they are all too often, whether consciously or not, seeking to elevate their ideas through the authority of science.    

So what is the big deal anyway, why be an annoying pain in the ass (see Christopher DiCarlo’s video), challenging people, making them uncomfortable, and making a big deal about something so trivial.  But is it really trivial?  I think not, although it may well be futile or quixotic.  The inappropriate use of the word theory, particularly by academics, is an implicit attempt to gain credibility.  It is also an attack on the integrity of science.  Why?  Because like it or not, science is the most powerful method we have to understand how the world works, as opposed to what the world or our existence within the world means.  The scientific enterprise, abiding as it does by explicit rules of integrity, objective evidence, logical and quantifiable implications, and their testing has been a progressive social activity, leading to useful knowledge – knowledge that has eradicated small pox and polio (almost) and produced iPhones, genetically modified organisms, and nuclear weapons.  That is not to say that the authority of science has not been repeatedly been used to justify horrific sociopolitical ideas, but those ideas have not been based on critically evaluated and tested scientific theories, but on variously baked ideas that claim the support of science (both the eugenics and anti-vaccination movements are examples).   

Modern science is based on theories, ideas about the universe that explain and predict what we will find when we look (smell, hear, touch) carefully at the world around us.  And these theories are rigorously and continually tested, quantitatively – in fact one might say that the ability to translate a theory into a quantitative prediction is one critical hallmark of a real versus an ersatz (non-scientific) theory [here is a really clever approach to teaching students about facts and theories, from David Westmoreland 

So where do (scientific) theories come from?  Initially they are guesses about how the world works, as stated by Richard Feynman and the non-scientific nature of vague “theories”.  Guesses that have evolved based on testing, confirmation, and where wrong – replacement with more and more accurate, logically well constructed and more widely applicable constructs – an example of the evolution of scientific knowledge.  That is why ideas are cheap, they never had, or do not develop the disciplinary rigor necessary to become a theory.  In fact, it often does not even matter, not really, to the people propounding these ideas whether they correspond to reality at all, as witness the stream of tweets from various politicians or the ease with which many apocalyptic predictions are replaced when they turn out to be incorrect.  But how is the average person to identify the difference between a (more or less half-baked) idea and a scientific theory?  Probably the easiest way is to ask, is the idea constantly being challenged, validated, and where necessary refined by both its proponents and its detractors.  One of the most impressive aspects of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is the accuracy of its predictions (the orbit of Mercury, time-dilation, and gravitational waves (link)), predictions that if not confirmed would have forced its abandonment – or at the very least serious revision.  It is this constant application of a theory, and the rigorous testing of its predictions (if this, then that) that proves its worth.  

Another aspect of a scientific theory is whether it is fecund or sterile.  Does its application lead to new observations that it can explain?  In contrast, most ideas are dead ends.  Consider the recent paper on the possibility that life arose outside of the Earth, a proposal known as pan-spermia (1) – “a very plausible conclusion – life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets” – and recently tunneling into  the web’s consciousness in stories implying the extra-terrestrial origins of cephalopods (see “no, octopuses don’t come from outer space.”)  Unfortunately, no actual biological insights emerge from this idea (wild speculation), since it simply displaces the problem, if life did not arise here, how did it arise elsewhere?  If such ideas are embraced, as is the case with many religious ideas, their alteration often leads to violent schism rather than peaceful refinement. Consider, as an example, an idea had by an archaic Greek or two that the world was made of atoms. These speculations were not theories, since their implications were not rigorously tested.  The modern atomic theory has been evolving since its introduction by Dalton, and displays the diagnostic traits of a scientific theory.  Once introduced to explain the physical properties of matter, it led to new discoveries and explanations for the composition and structure of atoms themselves (electrons, neutrons, and protons), and then to the composition and properties of these objects, quarks and such (link to a great example.)   

Scientific theories are, by necessity, tentative (again, as noted by Feynman) – they are constrained and propelled by new and more accurate observations.  A new observation can break a theory, leading it to be fixed or discarded.  When that happens, the new theory explains (predicts) all that the old theory did and more.  This is where discipline comes in; theories must meet strict standards – the result is that generally there cannot be two equivalent theories that explain the same phenomena – one (or both) must be wrong in some important ways.  There is no alternative, non-atomic theory that explains the properties of matter.  

The assumption is that two “competing” theories will make distinctly different predictions, if we look (and measure) carefully enough. There are rare cases where two “theories” make the same predictions; the classic example is the Ptolemaic Sun-centered and the Copernican Earth-centered models of the solar system.  Both explained the appearances  of planetary motion more or less equally well, and so on that basis there was really no objective reason to choose between them.  In part, this situation arose from an unnecessary assumption underlying both models, namely that celestial objects moved in perfect circular orbits – this assumption necessitated the presence of multiple “epicycles” in both models.  The real advance came with Kepler’s recognition that celestial objects need not travel in perfect circular orbits, but rather in elliptical orbits; this liberated models of the solar system from the need for epicycles.  The result was the replacement of “theories of solar system movement” with a theory of planetary/solar/galactic motions”.  

Whether, at the end of the day scientific theories are comforting or upsetting, beautiful or ugly remains to be seen, but what is critical is that we defend the integrity of science and call out the non-scientific use of the word theory, or blame ourselve for the further decay of civilization (perhaps I am being somewhat hyperbolic – sorry).

notes: 

1. Although really, pan-oogenia would be better.  Sperm can do nothing without an egg, but an unfertilized egg can develop into an organism, as occurs with bees.  

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

20 thoughts on “Ideas are cheap, theories are hard”

  1. Dear Mike:

    I suggest you re-read our paper carefully as you read this note.

    I have spent 10 years or more poring over and thinking about all the multifactorial evidence and all the explanations and criticisms. I expect serious critics to do what I have done – confront all the “extraordinary ” evidence in conflict with the terrestrial paradigm. Most of my co-authors have done that. Skeptics must do this – confront and evaluate the evidence and the primary literature.  Here some examples from our paper, which are paradigm shifting (that is, pure nonsense under the terrestrial neo-Darwinism paradigm).

    We now have a set of extraordinary facts to explain. The usual skeptical response in these situations is that “Extraordinary Explanations require Extraordinary Evidence’. The situation now is the reverse. Extraordinary, and multifactorial evidence exists now on Earth and its immediate environs. So now we must provide an “Extraordinary” explanation that fits all these facts and makes sense of them – this has been the aim of Science since time immemorial.

    Four extraordinary set of biological facts are speaking for themselves:
    • Eukaryotic fossils in meteorites > 4.5 billion years old ( e.g. Murchison)
    • Interstellar dust Infra red extinction spectrum = infra red extinction spectrum of freeze dried E. coli (this is the most incredible scientific result I have ever seen, see Fig 1 in our paper)
    • Bacteria in the cosmic dust on the external surface of the International Space Station
    • Tardigrades

    I have not added a list of other data, including space hardy biological data, Mars data, nor the Octopus RNA editing data, because I do not need to – four , quite unrelated, data sets are enough for biological significance. ( Statistical significance does not enter the picture). The skeptic and traditional Astrophysicist now needs to provide a convincing explanation of these data sets that avoids Panspermia.

    I am a pragmatic Popperian – I deal in hard facts that require a unifying explanation.

    Yours

    Ted Steele

    Edward J Steele PhD
    ASI, AIMS, ASCIA
    CYO Foundation, Piara Waters, 6112
    Perth, AUSTRALIA
    ejsteele@cyo.edu.au
    https://independent.academia.edu/EdwardJSteele

    Like

  2. Dear Mike:

    Not clear to me what you are pushing. I am a pragmatic Popperian and evaluate evidence firmly on its merits. There is a very simple proposition our paper addresses – All current facts in biology are interpreted within the frame of the “Terrestrial neo-Darwinian Paradigm”. We ask, among other questions, how many unusual facts can this theory accommodate? We have no doubt there are ongoing evolutionary processes also on Earth involving Darwinian and non-Darwinian mechanisms, as there would be in all other Cosmic habits.

    But I have spent 10 years or more poring over and thinking about all the multifactorial evidence and all the explanations and criticisms. I expect critics to do what I and many of my co-authors have done – confront all the “extraordinary ” evidence in conflict with the terrestrial paradigm. They must do what I have done in particular as lead author  – confront and evaluate the evidence and the primary literature.  Here are just some examples from our paper, which are paradigm shifting (that is, they pure nonsense under the terrestrial neo-Darwinism paradigm). My colleagues agree and would not have signed up if they thought this was wrong in a hot potato area like Panspermia.

    (This paper went through 12 months of tortuous peer-review. I would not have it any other way in the current system. All my work goes through extensive peer review (check out “Steele EJ” at PubMed) and you can find me on Wiki and my academia.edu site , below).

    I suggest you re-read our paper carefully as you read this note.

    We now have a set of extraordinary facts to explain. The usual skeptical response in these situations is that “Extraordinary Explanations require Extraordinary Evidence’. The situation now is the reverse. Extraordinary, and multifactorial evidence exists now on Earth and its immediate environs. So now we must provide an “Extraordinary” explanation that fits all these facts and makes sense of them – this has been the aim of Science since time immemorial.

    Four extraordinary sets of biological facts are speaking for themselves:
    • Eukaryotic fossils in meteorites > 4.5 billion years old ( e.g. Murchison)
    • Interstellar dust Infra red extinction spectrum = infra red extinction spectrum of freeze dried E. coli (this is the most incredible scientific result I have ever seen, see Fig 1 in our paper)
    • Bacteria in the cosmic dust on the external surface of the International Space Station
    • Tardigrades

    I have not added a list of other data, including space hardy biological data, Mars data, nor the Octopus RNA editing data, because I do not need to – four , quite unrelated, data sets are enough for biological significance. ( Statistical significance does not enter the picture). The skeptic and traditional Astrophysicist now needs to provide a convincing explanation of these data sets that avoids Panspermia.

    The challenge is to explain extraordinary facts, not engage in theoretical ideology.

    Yours

    Ted Steele

    Edward J Steele PhD
    ASI, AIMS, ASCIA
    CYO Foundation, Piara Waters, 6112
    Perth, AUSTRALIA
    ejsteele@cyo.edu.au
    https://independent.academia.edu/EdwardJSteele

    Like

    1. Dear Ted – The panspermia hypothesis seems, at least to me, sterile. It makes no testable predictions, given that ALL evidence indicates that ALL life on Earth (which is the only life that we know of), including various cephalopods and other weird organisms, appear unambiguously to have derived from a single universal common ancestor (LUCA).

      There is no doubt that this is a frustrating observation, since what came before LUCA is essentially unknowable, although we can generate plausible models – I have always found Günter Wächtershäuser’s ideas compelling [link][link], but then I am no chemist.

      More to the point, it is a distraction – whether on Earth or elsewhere, life (historic, bounded, non-equilibrium, replicating (and likely evolving and diversifying) systems arose – and panspermia of any sort (even if true) provides no useful insight into that process.

      Now if we discover a non-LUCA-derived form of life on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, then there will be something to talk about.

      Like

  3. My favorite quasi-scientific malapropism is “renewable energy”. That’s a real whopper, but since it is tied so tightly to a preferred delusion, almost no one recognizes its inherent stupidity.

    Like

    1. “…almost no one recognizes its inherent stupidity.

      Almost no-one is not no-one. I wonder who you are referring to or to what delusion and why you call it a whopper. Obvious jokes about fast food hamburgers aside.

      There’s the Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss to you) book “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back”. It was my favorite when I was six but now I regard it as a thinly veiled bit of propaganda for how wonderful nuclear power is. But I’m not talking about that.

      As it happens I recall an Issac Asimov story about this very subject. Asimov was famously an atheist, historian, scientist, author, environmentalist, Biblical scholar, Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and self admitted dirty old man.

      The story was part of a Novel called “The Gods Themselves” The title is taken from a quote from Friedrich von Schiller, a Nineteenth Century poet, (Yes, I had to look it up on Google. I thought that it was originally from King Lear) “Against stupidity, the god’s themselves contend in vain”.

      The story was about the discovery of an energy differential between our universe and another universe that could be exploited to provide our universe and the partner universe with seemingly free and unlimited energy. The fly in the ointment is that the exploitation of the differential is causing an increase in the nuclear strong force in our universe. This, in turn, will cause our sun to explode prematurely. Immenently, in fact. So it is a race against time to find a solution.

      If you haven’t read the story, I won’t tell you the solution. But I will say that it is the kind of a happy ending that still leaves open the possibility of future disaster.

      Like

  4. Is the line “the Ptolemaic Sun-centered and the Copernican Earth-centered models of the solar system” not a mistake?
    Copernicus introduced the Heliocentric Universe in contrast to the ancient earth-centered ideas.

    Like

  5. So glad to see this, especially since I’ve been writing, reporting, cajoling various scientific and non-scientific magazines, journals, books, about this problem. My concern is that creationists often use this by saying “evolution’s just a theory,” and the public accepts that because they are ignorant. Why are they ignorant…because not enough high school and college classes pay much attention to this matter. It’s usually glossed over in the first day or so of a course, and I’ve even reviewed texts by authors who seem to be confused over the word “theory.” I wrote a handout that Barbara Forrest told me was excellent, but that attempts to overturn the improper use of the term was practically futile because the term has been used improperly for many years now. People at NCSE have seen this handout, and if you’d like to just send me an email and I’ll send you one.
    Brian Myres
    myresmb@gmail.com

    Like

  6. As an example, the latest Scientific American issue has 2 articles in which the word “theory” is used incorrectly, written not by scientists but by science journalists, who never seem to get training into the use of scientific words. But also, that issue talks about “two competing theories” in another article, and that’s a tremendous case of oxymoronic verbiage in action! Maybe there are two ideas about it, but not two competing theories…competing hypotheses (is this word too long or too hard to spell?) is ok.

    Like

  7. So, does the “theory of evolution” (the origin of species by natural selection + chance + time) qualify as a scientific theory, or is it just an idea, just a guess, just a speculation?

    Seems to me that if we can’t get a new species to evolve from all the poor fruit flies we’ve been selecting on every which way we can think of for the past 1,000 generations or so, we might need to rethink the idea and its place in science. I mean, with an estimated 99.9% of all species having gone extinct, and with an estimated gazillion species out there today, surely the species origination rate must be high enough to generate something new that we can see/hear/taste/smell in our zoology collections in the laboratories around the world. Maybe I’m missing something.

    Like

    1. “Maybe I’m missing something.”

      I don’t think so. To paraphrase a famous playwright that lived well before Charles Darwin’s parents were a gleam in his grandparents’ eyes, Some people are born argumentative, some people achieve argumentativeness some people have argumentativeness thrust upon them.

      But seriously, I think that with the various refinements that have occurred in evolutionary theory in the past century many, if not all, of people’s questions (agressive, passive-agressive or otherwise) can be answered. Even if that answer is, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” In fact, I think that by asking annoying questions people are playing a valuable, if unintended, role in the advancement of evolutionary theory. Every king needs a jester.

      The way I see this forum is that it does not consist of scientific discussions. These are discussions about science, meta discussions, so to speak. Some might say discussions about the philosophy of science, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with that. The discussions here seem to fall somewhere between the formality of a philosophy of science class and the informality of a water cooler conversation. You might even say that this is the place that serious scientists go after work to metaphorically loosen their ties, take off their shoes and drink their favorite libation. That’s fine for me. If I had to discuss the fine points of current evolutionary theory or philosophy I would quckly reveal myself to be the ignoramous that I am.

      There are intelligent and silly people in the ranks of both scientists and non-scientists. Also kind, generous, thoughtful and ignorant, selfish, sarcastic people. Labels are just a form of generalizing for the sake of human’s convenience.

      Like

  8. Mike –

    Certainly a good and relevant rant :).

    I’ve always treated the distinction you describe as the difference between hypothesis and theory. I hypothesis can really be anything, for example “Humans cause global warming”, which then should develop into a scientific theory which is measurable and, just as important, falsifiable. The requirement of falsification was set forth by Karl Popper.

    So to further the example, we advance a hypothesis than humans cause global warming and proceed to built a theory that, humans release carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide absorbs and emits IR radiation, so as carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, global temperature will also increase in some proportion. We may theorize on the sensitivity of climate to carbon dioxide and build computer models that predict the behavior of climate based on out theory.

    In modern science, the falsification of such a theory is expressed statistically through the introduction of the “null hypothesis” and the “p value”. In this example the null hypothesis might be “carbon dioxide has no measurable effect on global temperature” and we would proceed to measure the amounts of carbon dioxide release by humans over a period of time along with global temperature. We perform a simple regression of the values to determine the probability they are related, expressed as the “p value”, which represents the probability the values observed are *not* related. A very large p value, approaching 1, would indicate the values were not related and so the null hypothesis, that carbon dioxide has no measurable effect on climate, is accepted and the AGW theory is rejected.

    This has in fact happened, yet for political rather than scientific reasons (and possibly as means of selling advertising in magazines, newspapers and web sites) it remains a popular topic of conversation and continues to be called a theory instead of a failed hypothesis, which is incorrect.

    Like

  9. Your definition of scientific theories is inaccurate. It is not at all true that every scientific theory is something that has been “confirmed through experiment or observation.” Widely discussed scientific theories nowadays include string theory, supersymmetry, the Everett “many worlds” theory, the theory of primordial exponential expansion, the multiverse, and about 6 or 7 competing theories of brain memory storage. None of these have been confirmed by observation or experiment. The explanatory part of Darwinism has not been confirmed by observation or experiment. We have no proof that a single biological innovation appeared because of random mutations and natural selection. I may also note that you contradict yourself by saying a scientific theory is something confirmed, but then say that such a theory can be discarded. Why would we ever discard a theory that had been confirmed?

    Like

    1. Sorry, but I respectfully disagree – in fact my point is that the idea, at least of “scientific theory”, has been hijacked primarily because it posits established credibility and value. As commonly used, the criteria for “theory” now includes a wide range of wishful thinking, unobserved or unobservable presumptions (angels on pin heads and multiverses), and all to often self- or disciplinary promotion.

      Language matters, although perhaps to an increasingly small portion of the population. I hold that we should reserve, at least in science, the word theory for logical, empirical-based, predictive and potentially disprovable systems of ideas. In this light, string and other “theories” (e.g. intelligent design creationism) fall short.

      That said, there is nothing innately wrong with presenting interesting ideas and wildly imaginative speculations (various political movements and apocalyptic visions fall into this class), it is just that they different from theories.

      Like

  10. I saw a link to this post on thepandashumb.org in the article by Matt Young titled “Who Gets to Define Theory”. I clicked on the link because it’s title resembled one of my favorite quotes. Edwin Booth was the brother of John Wilkes Booth and the most famous actor of his time. Forgive me if you’ve heared this before. As the story goes he is supposed to have been asked on his deathbed, “Is it difficult to die?” Booth’s response was “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

    Anyway, I read your post and I liked it. So many times I come across books, articles, films, etc. where the best thing about them is the title. I’m happy to say that I agreed with most of what this post says.

    I have no intention to step on your expertise. However the only thing that I might suggest is where you ask:

    “So what is the big deal anyway, why be an annoying pain in the ass (see Christopher DiCarlo’s video), challenging people, making them uncomfortable, and making a big deal about something so trivial.”

    First; I enjoyed that video. James Randi (of the JRF foundation) is one of my favorite skeptics. Probably because he is also an accomplished showman.

    Second; A shorter and simpler answer (from my point of view, yeah, everyone’s a critic) to the rhetorical question might be something to the effect of:

    In a world where people find themselves under a constant barrage of promises that the “next big thing”, commercial, political, or religious, will make life simpler but only succeeds in making life more complicated, somebody has to. Why not me?

    Like

Leave a Reply to Martin Zeichner Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s